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The essential XML bookshelf: Introductions

In this tip, Ed Tittel gives an introduction to a variety of books best suited to help you understand and utilize XML.

As somebody who's contributed to over 100 computer books myself, I like to think I know something about the impetus behind and the business involved in such books. One thing is for sure when it comes to such titles: Most computer books are fairly ephemeral and few last more than three years or so. That's simply because the technology keeps changing and targets of interest keep moving as time goes by. That's why I wanted to revisit my XML bookshelf story and return to the subject of good introductions to this essential markup language and representational technology. I fully expected some serious turnover in this space, thinking that the march of time would obliterate traces of the past. I was wrong and I think I know why.

Though XML has been around for some time now, it's become far more relevant to day-to-day life in the areas of content and software development, as well as representing data for everything from configuration and update profile, as I described in two recent tips about XML files found on typical Windows desktops. In fact, it's as important to the operating system itself as it is to many applications and client-side access information and history files — to defining mechanisms for data exchange from e-commerce to zoology. While I expected this to mean some turnover in, or additions to, those nonpareils designed to lead newcomers into XML (for which the first XML 1.0 recommendation appeared on February 10, 1998), I was surprised to observe that the same cadre of good introductions that ruled the roost the last time I checked into this area in 2002 still hold sway today. That said, these books are now old enough that some fabulous deals are readily available to those who want to add some trusty XML warhorses to their libraries and there is one new addition to this list, though it's been around since 2002 itself.

Inside XML, by Steve Holzner, New Riders, November, 2000, ISBN: 0735710201. At 1,100-plus pages, this book is more encyclopedic, or at least more comprehensive, in its coverage than a typical introduction. That said, it offers great coverage of a broad range of topics illustrated profusely with well-constructed examples throughout. It reaches back into XML's background in the Standard Generalized Markup Language, or SGML, and also covers related parsing tools, programming languages, style sheets and XHTML at a comfortable and usable level of detail. Its delivery precludes coverage of later developments in XML Schema, related metadata (Relax NG, as so forth), and some additional XML applications, but it remains a great resource and a pretty good read.

XML Bible, 2e, Elliotte Rusty Harold, Wiley, March, 2004, ISBN: 075549863. One of the few books in this list to get a second edition in the interim, this is another massive offering (nearly 1,250 pages) from a well-known and -respected XML author (and one of my personal favorites). Here you'll also find copious examples, further supported by soft copies on the book's companion CD. This book covers much of the same ground as does Holzner's, but also includes coverage of style sheets in more depth from both CSS and XSL perspectives, as well as XML Schema.

XML CD Bookshelf, by O'Reilly and Associates (numerous authors do get credit for each title, but ORA takes credit for putting this collection together), November, 2002, ISBN: 05960003358. This compendium delivers 7 good books in soft copy format on CD, including a couple of real favorites—Elliotte Rusty Harold's XML in a Nutshelll, 2e, and Doug Tidwell's XSLT, along with a hard copy of the aforementioned Nutshell book, all for under $45. You'll also find titles on XML Schema, SAX2, Java & XML, 2e, and Java & XSLT, plus Perl & XML included on the CD as well. This is a killer deal, especially for developers interested in Java or Perl (or both).

XML for the World Wide Web: Visual QuickStart Guide, by Elizabeth Castro, Peachpit, October, 2000, ISBN: 0201710986. I'm a great fan of Elizabeth Castro's HTML book as well and this one is almost as good as that companion and predecessor volume. This book is both a good introduction and a great compact XML reference tool, illustrated with examples for every markup language and language element it covers.

XML Pocket Consultant, by William Stanek, Microsoft Press, January, 2002, ISBN: 0735611831. This is probably the best compact reference on XML around, though it's examples are totally Microsoft derived. But for those looking for quick details on syntax and basic XML application structures (including XML Schema and XSLT, among others), it's both cogent and concise.

Of course, given over one thousand books now in print that related in some form or fashion to XML or specific XML applications, this list is just a small sampling of what's available in book form. That said, these remain perennial favorites and will repay an investment in their purchase with plenty of useful information and examples.

Those who may choose to consult the Web rather than a book for good XML introductions should visit one or more of the following Web sites instead:

  • is a terrific repository for XML information and copiously illustrated examples of all kinds. Their XML basics quick start is a good place to start digging into this subject matter.
  • The site has tutorials out the wazoo, including an extensive set of XML topics including a very good XML introduction (Learn XML) along with coverage of most of the key XML applications.
  • O'Reilly also runs, which includes links to lots of tutorials and overviews on the Essentials section right from its home page. Definitely worth checking out and often from the same people who wrote the W3C standards documents.
  • JupiterWeb runs lots of sites of interest to Webophiles, but its site is of great interest to those seeking XML information. In particular, Jan Egil Refsnes has created a huge number of overviews and introductions chock-full of useful information (see the XML Basics section on the homepage for a complete list).

All in all there's still plenty to find and like about what's available by way of XML introductions in print and online. Dig in and start learning sometime soon!

About the author

Ed Tittel is a full-time writer and trainer whose interests include XML and development topics, along with IT Certification and information security topics. E-mail Ed at with comments, questions or suggested topics or tools for review.

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